A quarter-century has passed since the nation’s first charter-school law was enacted in Minnesota, leading to arguably the most fundamental shift in public education in my lifetime.
Across the 42 states that now have charter-school laws, access to a quality education is no longer determined by the neighborhood in which a student lives. Families in these states have grown accustomed to competition and choice in the K-12 education marketplace. For nearly three million charter school students and their families, there is no going back.
Just as critical, the 6,700 individual charter schools that have opened nationwide are serving as incubators of the most forward-thinking leaders in public education. In my home state of Arizona, families may choose from 556 public charter schools – including those that specialize in STEM instruction, the arts, college-prep, online instruction and more.
That is what happens when school leaders are freed from traditional education bureaucracy. It’s the essence of local control.
That’s why the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was enacted at the end of last year, is so monumental. Not only does this bipartisan measure return power over public education to where it rightfully belongs – the states – it also includes a provision I offered that prioritizes federal education tax dollars to expand student access to the highest-performing public charter, magnet and district schools.
Currently, the lack of additional capacity keeps an estimated one million students nationwide locked out of the charter school of their choice. I’m confident the Every Student Succeeds Act will begin to address this enrollment bottleneck.
Of course, educational performance is the best indicator of success, and research shows that students are best served when teachers, parents and schools have control over education – not Washington bureaucrats.
The latest round of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows nationally that scores were flat or declining in reading and math. But Arizona charter schools bucked the trend, with charter students achieving a marked improvement.
In fact, if Arizona’s 170,000 public charter school students were measured as an individual state, that state would have ranked 2nd nationally for both eighth-grade math and reading, according to the non-partisan Center for Student Achievement. Arizona’s fourth grade charter school students did nearly as well, ranking 5th nationally in math and 7th in reading.
The emphasis in Arizona is now on replicating and expanding those schools that have discovered a winning formula, and more aggressive monitoring of overall school performance. Failing charter schools should be closed. No excuses.
The result of these combined actions is undeniable. Nearly one-third of all Arizona public schools are now charters, and charter students – as a whole – are performing on-par or better than their peers in upper-crust, northeastern states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont.
This is what is possible when decisions about our children’s education are kept local, innovation is rewarded and school leaders are empowered.
Twenty-five years later, these principles remain at the heart of a charter and school choice movement that is remaking K-12 education in Arizona and nationwide. Our children are the beneficiaries.
Republican John McCain is a Navy veteran. He represents Arizona in the United States Senate.